Chattanooga medical tattoos restore sense of self for cancer survivors and others

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Robin Hays, medical tattoo artist, seated in her workspace.

After sisters Lisa Wilt and Cindy McGrady both underwent double mastectomies, they began the long process of reconstruction. Once a mastectomy is complete and implants are placed in the chest during reconstruction, a patient can choose whether or not to have their plastic surgeon reconstruct the areola lost during the mastectomy.

Some women do not want to replace the nipple, said Chattanooga-area Certified Permanent Cosmetic Professional Robin Hays. Hays has seen women opt for smiley faces or ornate artwork instead, pieces for which she will refer clients to a traditional tattoo artist. Hays sees women who have reconstructed nipples or just want to have a tattoo of an areola instead. Hays specializes in medical and cosmetic tattooing, offering 3D areola tattooing, scar camouflage, permanent eyeliner, eyebrows and lip-blushing services in Chattanooga, Dalton and Atlanta.

(READ MORE: Local tattoo artists and the people they've worked on discuss Chattanooga's tattoo scene)

Areola Restoration

Once Wilt and McGrady healed from reconstruction, they sought out Robin Hays' areola-tattooing services. Both women decided to have their nipples reconstructed, and Hays tattooed the color back onto the skin to create a realistic appearance. When women do not want to have their plastic surgeons recreate their nipples during reconstruction, Hays says that she uses 3D tattooing techniques to illustrate areolas that look like they're "popping out of the skin."

Wilt received her areola tattoos from Hays in 2021 and says that they look better than they looked before her surgery.

"Some people that I've talked to say, 'I wouldn't want to fool with it,' but I really think it helps with our self-esteem," Wilt says. "It helps get us back to a sense of well-being if we do those things, so that when we look at a mirror, we look normal."

Under the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998, Hays says that insurance providers are required to cover all stages of breast reconstruction following a mastectomy, including areola tattooing. If out-of-pocket, unilateral areola restoration costs $400, and bilateral areola restoration costs $800. Hays also partners with nonprofit organizations that will help women without insurance cover the costs.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga dermatologist gives 6 simple skin care tips)

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Different pigments sit on a shelf in Robin Hays' workspace.

 Scar Camouflage

Hays sees clients who want to camouflage surgical or trauma-related scars. Some clients born with cleft palates receive plastic surgery to create lip symmetry, and Hays will help tattoo symmetry back into the lips if they start to become uneven after the healing process.

If a client has a facial scar following skin cancer removal or a scar somewhere else on the body that they would like to get rid of, there are two different approaches Hays will take, depending on how long the client has had the scar and what kind of scar it is.

If a client has had a scar for multiple years and the skin has turned white, Hays tattoos the pigment back into the scar to match the skin tone of the client. Hays says she also uses this approach if a client has either hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation in the skin and wants to fill in the light or dark area to match the appearance of the rest of the skin.

If a scar is up to a year old in the healing process or a very fine scar from self-harm, sometimes Hays says she is able to use microneedling to regenerate the skin and bring the color back without having to re-pigment it artificially.

Scar camouflaging costs $250 per 30 minutes and between $300 and $400 for maintenance.


The first time Wilt underwent treatment for breast cancer, she did not get chemotherapy. However, she decided she would still like to get her eyebrows tattooed when she went in for her areola tattoos. After she had a recurrence and had to go through chemotherapy and lost her hair, Wilt says she was thankful that she had tattooed her eyebrows.

"Boy, was I glad that I had them when chemo came around," Wilt says. "It's already bad enough, and then you look at yourself without eyebrows."

When McGrady went through chemotherapy, she did not lose her eyebrows, but she wanted to reinforce their appearance and cover grays, so she also received eyebrow tattoos from Hays.

Unlike areola tattooing, permanent eyebrow tattoos are considered cosmetic and are not covered by insurance. However, for clients who lose their eyebrows due to chemotherapy or an autoimmune disease like alopecia, some of the nonprofits Hays partners with are able to offer financial support, or she will see the client pro bono if they meet the qualifications.

Eyebrow tattooing costs $600 in Chattanooga and $700 in Atlanta.


Hays splits her time between her three service areas, either working out of her clients' doctors' offices or scheduling visits with clients directly at one of her locations.

"She made a very arduous journey much more pleasant," Wilt says.

To inquire about Hays' services in Chattanooga and Dalton, call 423-505-3223, or call 404-822-3061 for Hays' services in Atlanta. For more information, visit

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Medical tattoo artist Robin Hays uses a variety of different pigments to do areola reconstruction and scar coverage.